One of the often-heard sentiments in the popular press is this: The problems faced by adivasis and other poor people in mineral-rich parts of India are real, and Naxalism may be feeding on these deprivations. It is important to tackle the underlying deficit of development in due course, but the need of the hour today is to tackle the Naxals militarily and finish off the threat. Development will take years, and dealing with the Maoists cannot be put off until development takes hold.
I totally disagree.
There have been reams of paper devoted to the origins and nature of the conflict that is now raging in the forest areas of our Central states. All sorts of people - from 'shoot from the hip' politicians who have little understanding of development or the state, to genuine scholars of the region and its development problems - have weighed in with ideas on what should be done.
It seems to me, from reading these reams, that there are only two real 'solutions' being talked about. One is that the region must be brought under the authority and control of the government at all levels, and the rule of law and order re-established. The second, usually also placed second, is that the region must see veritable signs of development from the large-scale exploitation of its mineral wealth that is now ongoing. The only real point of difference between various voices appears to be how much relative emphasis they place on the the two; some speak more loudly of tackling the Maoists while others stress the development imperative more.
This is where we encounter the argument that 'development must wait, while the immediate need is to snuff out the threat'. It is flawed for two reasons.
No one who espouses this has actually thought this through.
There is an ambitious assumption in this - that overcoming the Naxals is not likely to take more than a few months, and therefore a delay in focusing on development concerns is not likely to be that great. There is no evidence to believe this; indeed, if that were true the Maoists could have been dealt with long ago, but for some reason we continue to wallow in this illusion. Moreover, it is argued circuitously, since the State now lacks the capacity to bring development to the region, it would be just as well to focus on the fighting for now. This, we should recognise is putting the cart before the horse, or in this case, putting the car before the ore.
The second element to the 'development must wait' argument is that it will take quite a while before the fruits of development will be apparent on the ground, and that the State cannot afford to allow the problem to fester until this comes about. This is worth examining, because it brings up an important maxim of governance in India - that the development of the people cannot be carried out rapidly, and doing so would somehow destabilise the economy and the polity. This is the prevailing view, not only in the forests of Dantewada but throughout the nation - in the slums of Mumbai, in the factories of Gujarat and Tamilnadu, in the greenfield airports around the country, etc.
In countless development projects around the country, the view is the same. Some near-term sacrifice is 'necessary' to achieve a larger public good, and if only the people of the region would be patient, they would eventually discover that what is being proposed in their area is good for all, including themselves.
The trouble with this view is that it views development as an outcome. I.e. people aspire to certain standards of living - health, education, leisure, etc. - and that delivering these outcomes is the goal of development. And from this, the rest of it is quite predictable. It takes years to build schools and hospitals, create jobs, and promote various forms of entertainment, and this naturally means that the goals of development cannot be met right away. Once you accept that development is the result of doing all these things, it makes perfect sense that the short-term victims of various projects must grin and bear their sorrows for the greater good of the country.
But there is a different way to think about this. If instead of thinking of development as an outcome, we were think of it as a 'method' or a 'process', we would get a very different view.
For instance, we could, in the case of the Maoist-linked violence, decree that about half the profits from the mining of minerals in the affected states shall belong to the residents of the area, and that they shall have the right to participate as equity stakeholders in such projects. Or, further along this view, we could say that residents in project areas shall have veto power over the grant of mining licenses (which are currently dished out without even a bidding process by state capitals), and similarly for other projects like chemical plants, bottling plants, and so on. If we created these powers in the local polity, we would have a very different imagination of the word 'development'.
And the beauty of it is that these measures of development can be achieved quickly. There is no reason to wait months or years, once we have decided that development shall mean self-development. All it would take is a wave of the legislative wand, and presto - with real negotiating power in their hands, the communities themselves could arrange their own development. Or, if they choose otherwise, they could decide that they aren't particularly interested in resource-extractive projects in their ancient lands, and would much rather be left alone, thank you.
The real bane of our democracy is not in the choices it makes. Instead, its weakness is in antipathy to people's choices. By foreswearing the rights of Indians, in our own neighbourhoods and communities, to take control of our destiny, the State has ensured its own inability to exert much control over its territory.